Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve 1903. Cornell grew up in a grand house in Nyack, New York. Cornell’s parents shared their love of music, ballet, and literature with their children. Evenings were spent around the piano, or listening to music on the family Victrola. Trips to New York meant vaudeville shows in Times Square or magic acts at the Hippodrome. But Cornell’s childhood was not without sadness. His brother, born with cerebral palsy, was confined to a wheelchair. Joseph, who was extremely attached to him, became his principal caretaker.
In 1917, following his father’s death, mother and childrens moved to the borough of Queens in New York City. Cornell attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the class of 1921, although he did not graduate.
He was first and foremost a collector. He loved to scour old bookshops and secondhand stores of New York looking for souvenirs, theatrical memorabilia, old prints and photographs, music scores, and French literature.
He eventually became an internationally renowned modern artist. Despite the fact that he had no professional training, Held was an artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. Influenced by the Surrealists, he was also an avant-garde experimental filmmaker.